When I was in first or second grade, I was terrible at math. I absolutely could not understand long addition. Long addition was supposed to be easier than adding numbers in a straight line, but I didn’t understand the concept of carrying numbers. My teachers would explain over and over that you add this to that, and then you carry this and then you add that et viola! There’s the answer! It still made no sense to me. They may as well have been pulling rabbits out of a hat.
Luckily, my dad realized where I was having a break in understanding, and took it upon himself to explain, step by step, the actual concept behind long addition. And I finally understood it, clear as day. I quickly became one of the best math students in my class. It got to the point where I actually enjoyed math and solving math problems became a game for me.
After that, my dad started tutoring both my brother and me in math every weekend. For many years, saturdays were our Math Tutoring Sessions with Dad.
Now, my dad has always had a penchant for doing things his own way. This meant we were to set aside several hours for his tutoring and forget everything our teachers at school had said and just listen to him. He’d usually start off by glancing over our textbooks and homework assignments, raise his eyebrows and harumph, and then launch into colorful tales of ancient Greece where Pythagoras explained his theorem to his students, or how Bertrand came up with his postulate by the flicker of a lonely candle in 19th century Europe, and how we must apply the Socratic Method to all of this if we want to truly understand any of it.
As I grew older, I would sometimes get annoyed with these long-winded explanations and wanted to cut to the chase, i.e. a specific problem, instead. But I understand the method to my father’s madness now. Instead of teaching us formulas, shortcuts, and tricks, my father taught us the concepts themselves, and the underlying logic that allowed for these concepts to be formed in the first place. He gave us the tools to solve any problem by showing us the logical building blocks of a concept and explaining the position of each block. He taught us that true success comes from truly understanding something, and then applying that understanding into practical forms and steps. NOT haphazardly memorizing or cramming formulas and facts in order to get rewarded in the short run. This is true for everything in life.
Today, I am obviously not a mathematician, scientist, or engineer. The most “math” I use in everyday life is simple arithmetic. How much cash do I need to bring if I have to get gas, stop at the store, and pay for dinner and drinks with friends? How many hours do I need to allocate in order to drive to the valley, audition, drive back, and then get ready for class? At the rate I’m going, how many months will it take for this blog to reach 1 million views? You know, things like that.
But the logic my father taught me years ago affects my life on a far deeper level, and allows me to analyze and understand problems in all areas of my life.
Of course, not all problems have clear-cut solutions, because life has agency as well as structure and there is a good deal of chaos in the world. The point, however, is to be able to understand and solve that which you can, and to have enough faith and intuition to allow that which you cannot to work out on its own.
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